Wednesday, November 12, 2014


REMBRANDT: The Late Works

Entrance to the exhibition

The little ash-grey brain cells start leaving us the minute we're born and by middle age they've
taken early redundancy and when we're OLD they've emigrated in droves to wherever brain cells go when they're not in our skulls. The stubborn handful which remain to await final expulsion are just about capable of turning on the tv or perhaps taking up a hobby that doesn't take up too much room or make a mess.

This, in an exaggerated nutshell, is what scientists, academics and other highly qualified authorities assert is fact. Some of them have also done research which proves that ground-breaking innovation in art, as in other areas of human creativity, happens, when it happens, only in the young. The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.


In my un-authorised opinion youth is a flexible definition, one that can be stretched like elastic if the pull is strong enough. And the strongest pull of all is creativity itself, if persistently exercised, sustained and nurtured. Which is why certain individuals, Rembrandt for example, throw the facts about ageing out of the window.

 Rembrandt, Self-Portrait with Two Circles 1665-69

Old Mastery, such as I was privileged to witness last week in the magnificent National Gallery exhibition of Rembrandt's late work, is proof that brain cells can and will obey the instructions of genius rather than the robotic agenda of nature. He died aged only 63, a mere stripling by modern standards, but the old man who looks out of his uncompromising self-portraits has reached a state of understanding which transcends age and a mastery of his craft which grants him freedom to focus only on what really matters to him - to the genius in him - and to discard the rest.

..In ancient Roman religion, the genius was the individual instance of a general divine nature present in every individual person, place, or thing.
...attendant spirit present from one's birth, innate ability or inclination’, from the Latin root of gignere ‘beget’.

 Rembrandt, Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, 1669 (the year he died).

Could it be that the attendant spirit in each of us reaches a state of maturity only when we allow it to become the dominant influence in our lives? Whatever form it takes, whether expressed through art or by any other means, it seems to be a path consciously chosen and pursued with unswerving dedication.

More than Rembrandt's bold, astonishingly modern handling of oil paint and the miraculous fluency of his drawings and etchings it was the compassionate yet unsentimental truth of the portraits which struck me. Technical virtuosity was always evident throughout his career but it is in these late works that you can feel he has jettisoned all desire to please, to compete or to be 'correct'. His eyes are not looking at the audience, fans or critics, but into himself - the sadness, the losses in his life, his own failings and disillusions - but also beyond himself to the unknown and unknowable.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014


Like or dislike do not apply and Wow, though appropriate, is unacceptably lightweight for such weightiness. Weighty is the word that keeps coming to mind as I try to gather my impressions of this stunning - as in stunned by a heavy blow to the head - exhibition. Literally heavy: sky's-the-limit kilos of lead, plaster, clay, sand, ash, wood, straw, brick-thick slabs of paint and other stuff making the stately walls of the R.A. groan in pain, awe or ecstasy. Weighty as in authoritative, serious, ponderous.

Anselm Kiefer is a heavyweight in a lightweight contemporary art world. His works are like slow-burning coals in that world's flashy fireworks. Do I like his art? Like - a word now and forever degraded by FaceBook and other social media - does not apply. Kiefer's work is anchored, you could say trapped, in gravity, in gravitas. It aims at immortality with iron-willed determination and pre-empts the destructive effects of time by imitating them.

I'm going to risk stereotyping and say that you can't separate Kiefer's work from German history and culture. Wagner and Nietzsche could be the soundtrack to this show but a thoughtful silence is better. German identity - historical, cultural, political, mythological, psychological, personal - is a theme that Kiefer has intensely and consistently explored in unorthodox, often controversial ways and although he's travelled the world and now lives in France it seems to me that, wherever he goes, he carries his German-ness like a heavy back-pack which is both a burden and a useful source. Whether or not his astonishingly productive, energetic and successful career owes something to the Hero-As-Conqueror Teutonic gene, Kiefer demonstrates that you can conquer the world without invading and occupying it (turns these into art-actions). If proof is needed of his artistic dominance take a look at the list of some honours Anselm Kiefer has received:

Grand State Prize for Fine Art, Germany 1983. Wolf Foundation Prize in the Arts, Israel and Goslarer Kaiserring, Germany 1990. Praemium Imperiale, Japan Art Association 1999. Federal Cross of Merit and Austrian Decoration for Science and Art 2005. Peace Prize of the German Book Trade 2008. Adenauer-de-Gaulle Prize (in recognition of his contribution to cultural dialogue between Germany and France) 2009. Chair of Artistic Creation, Coll├Ęge de France 2010. Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, French Ministry of Culture 2011. Leo Baeck medal for German-Jewish reconciliation, Leo Baeck Institute, New York 2011. 

I must apologise for not writing a comprehensive, objective review of the works themselves but, as an artist looking at others' art, my objectivity becomes blurred by personal agenda, personal creative tendencies, needs and preferences. In a gallery or museum my ego usually walks ahead, pushing aside my humbler self. "Is there anything here for me?" it says, hunting for something which might feed the muse, maybe just a clue, a hint. I'm not ashamed of my biased one-eyed doppelganger. I need it, it's a helper. If it pays insufficient attention to a large proportion of extraordinary things on show I have to admit that life, my artist life, is too short to appreciate everything. And anyway, great artists can do without my appreciation.

Among the pieces in this vast exhibition that my egocentric eye focused upon were, of course, Kiefer's giant books. I'd only seen some in reproduction before and the materials themselves, up close, excited me: watercolour on plaster on cardboard! Pages as tall as I am! Pages you need a weight-lifter's help to turn. Allright then, I won't make the pages so heavy. And those electrolysed lead books, so fabulously distressed... No way. No lead. No lead poisoning.

Then there were woodcuts pasted onto canvas and painted over, under, between, behind. And a terrific giant concertina-wall woodcut The Rhine (Melancholia) that you walk through as you exit the show.....I will do some giant prints. In sections. Yes, I will.

To make up for my shortcomings as art reporter, here are some relevant links I found after writing this post. If any of them don't open when you click on them, copy/paste the link into your browser.